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The Death of John Barleycorn: Prohibition in Nashville

January 26, 2020

2020 is an important anniversary year for a couple of reasons. Most notably is the 19th Amendment, which we'll be celebrating with a new permanent exhibit in Special Collections (in addition to a few other temporary exhibits in the building). But another important Amendment went into effect 100 years ago this month that had a long-lasting impact on the country, and that's Prohibition.

Most people are well-acquainted with the term "prohibition" and what it refers to, but I'm curious if the same amount of people are familiar with the movement before it became a federal amendment, and that it existed strongly in Nashville prior to the 18th Amendment? Maybe; I do have some smart readers.

But in case you're not familiar with it, and are clueless to what it refers to — here's a brief refresher...

According to Merriam-Webster's definition of the capitalized version of the word, "Prohibition" means: "the forbidding by law of the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic liquors except for medicinal and sacramental purposes." 


Sign closing businesses due to the National Prohibition Act.

Ratified on the 16th of January, 1919 and officially put into effect on January 17th, 1920, the 18th Amendment or "National Prohibition Act" (or informally known as the Volstead Act) was the official amendment that made it a federal law to manufacture, sell, transport, drink, or possibly even look at alcohol unless for medicinal or religious reasons. 

Why did this happen? There's a whole can of worms opened by this question, but essentially it was approximately 100 years in the making with the Temperance Movement (which began in the1820's). This movement that very much existed here in Nashville started as limiting alcohol consumption and eventually became total prohibition. 

The movement had its roots in religious (duh) and capitalist motives, especially by the Protestant Church. Borrowing from TSLA's 'Temperance Movement in Tennessee' page, the following quote sums up why the church vehemently supported Temperance and eventually Prohibition...

"They preached that by avoiding the moral evil of alcohol, believers would be better prepared for eternal life."

But like a few other cities and states, Nashville was ahead of the game. Intrigued? Please, read on, and be sure to check out a few of my favorite political cartoons from the 1920 Tennessean and the 1919 Life Magazine, at the end of the post. 

Booze Laws in the South 

The Temperance Movement and Prohibition were pretty strong in the South; who could've guessed that? Tennessee actually became the first state to pass a Prohibition law in 1838; the legislation stated that it was a misdemeanor to sell alcoholic beverages in taverns and stores. But that was all thanks to the ever-growing Temperance Movement.

Some of the earliest Temperance societies actually came about in Tennessee; in 1829, Nashville and Kingsport organized their societies. There were even newspapers that sprung up in a few cities, including Nashville, supporting the cause. A few other promoters of the cause in the state included the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League. 


News clipping from the Leaf Chronicle in January, 1872 concerning the Temperance Movement, and the newspaper's apparent opinion on the matter.

I've already mentioned the Protestant Churches' reasoning for supporting Temperance, but there were other reasons why some individuals stood behind the cause. One example is an employer's reasoning—especially industrial leaders—who supported Temperance because ideally it meant better work habits among its employees (ideally, if effective of course). 

Since I already mentioned that the Temperance Movement eventually merged itself into total prohibition of alcohol, it's important to note too that throughout the end of the 19th century and early 20th century until the 18th Amendment, various laws were passed throughout the state, slowly banning alcohol in certain areas, such as near schools, churches, and hospitals. TSLA's website says "the issue came to dominate Tennessee politics and it was 'dry' vs. 'wet,' or prohibition vs. anti-prohibition."

There are a couple of great examples where Temperance or Prohibition impacted regular business or the daily lives of Nashvillians. The first involves the Nashville Centennial Exposition of 1880 (not to be mistaken with the Tennessee Centennial Exposition from 1897). The second involves the murder of Sen. Edward Carmack; the full story of his murder can be found in a previous blog post I wrote about his murder

Alcohol? Allowed at the Exposition? Blasphemy!


Advertisement from the Daily American newspaper, for the Nashville Centennial Exposition, 1880.

Nashville was celebrating its 100th birthday in 1880 and honored it with an exposition (from April 23rd - May 30th). They wanted to honor the city's many achievements and its founding history, while also looking ahead to the future by featuring many new industrial inventions for visitors to see. But, being just 15 years since the end of the Civil War, they also didn't want to forget what they believed they lost during the Civil War (or revering the "Lost Cause" as many Southerners saw it). So naturally this meant " outpouring of pageantry, orations, monuments, and publications" (according to Nashville in the New South). 

Not that this part is important to the Temperance-side-of-things, but the exposition was also an important opportunity for commercial means as well, according to the same book. For young businessmen of the city, the Centennial was an opportunity for "an event of great commercial as well as historical importance." In a way, this involves alcohol too because during this time, the city was still recovering from a depression that started in 1873. So this exposition would allow for Nashville to be advertised to the world as a promising city of "industrial and commercial center." Somehow, alcohol is involved in this somewhere. 

It was directly involved from the beginning since there was a group of evangelical Protestants who did not want alcoholic beverages sold on the exposition grounds, due to their opinion that "drunken men would spoil the exposition for families and serious businessmen."


News clipping from the Knoxville Daily Chronicle from April, 1880, regarding the sell of beer at the Nashville Centennial Exposition.

But a compromise was met between the evangelicals and the exposition commission, since it was thought that if people (mostly that refers to men, considering the time we're talking about here in terms of women's decorum) were unable to find a drink at the exposition, they'd simply go across the street to get one, possibly taking their friends with them. This was even more of a possibility since saloons and other businesses in the area provided discounts for the anticipated crowds.

So the compromise was that beer would be the only substance sold within the exposition, and it was sold in a house that adjoined the building—"behind closed doors." I believe the name of the establishment was "Tamble & Brothers" beer saloon, and was discreetly tucked away in the western corner of the building (assumably that meant closer to Midtown today, or closer to Union Station that would not have been there at that time). 

Were the members of the Temperance Movement still perturbed? Of course, but in the name of the visitors having a good time—checking out the new industrial machinery (like new sewing machines and a fan-type device), and various performers such as Miss Eliza Goodwin's dance class, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and even baby shows—the Centennial Commission chose to ignore the dissenting voices. 

Another interesting fact about the exposition? It's not related to alcohol, but apparently the "grand culminating event" of the exposition was the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson on the State Capitol grounds (on the east side of the grounds).

And the exact location of the exposition, you ask? According to my trusty Nashville in the New South book, the site of the exposition building was "on the south side of Broad Street, just west of Spruce Street (Eighth Avenue today). This site was ideal for transportation purposes since the streetcar line that ran along Church, Spruce, and Broad Street could bring visitors from the various hotels downtown, such as the Maxwell House Hotel on 4th and Church (4th would've been Cherry Street at that time). The building presently located there is the Estes Kefauver Federal Building.


April 24th, 1880 - The Centennial Procession, that appears to be marching around Public Square (the former courthouse on the right). Photo from the book Nashville in the New South.

The Death of Sen. Edward Carmack

I'll make this one brief, because I cover all of this in the other blog post. (Intrigued? You can get the full story here.)

But the reason the murder of Senator Edward Carmack has anything to do with Prohibition is because the issue is at the center of why he was murdered (that, and his antagonizing big mouth, to put it bluntly). He would've been better off keeping his mouth shut—or more aptly, his pen down—but nope: that didn't happen. Carmack was an avid Prohibitionist, and chose to take on his former boss and mentor, Duncan Cooper (who was an Anti-Prohibitionist). They slung words back and forth at each other (in the newspapers mostly, so it was in permanent ink), and unfortunately they met in person when both were carrying guns. Sadly, Carmack was too slow. 

But naturally, because of his murder, Carmack became a martyr to the Prohibitionists and it possibly helped their cause. 

The 18th and 19th Amendments Worked Together

I plan to cover this more when I write a blog post about the 19th Amendment, but a large part of the reason the 18th Amendment passed was the women who supported it (like the WCTU that I mentioned above). Many women supported the Temperance Movement and then Prohibition for personal reasons: morality, and many women viewed alcohol as the catalyst for the abuse and mistreatment they received from their husbands. But women also supported Prohibition because to gain supporters for Prohibition often meant gaining support for women's suffrage as well. 

On the flip side, this is also the reason why many men and women did not support a woman's right to vote—it might also mean no more legal alcohol. Luckily for those people, the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th, was passed in 1933.

Evidence of Prohibition from Archives' Collections

Through volunteer projects and general research, we've come across several of our records that provide evidence of the impact of the Temperance Movement and Prohibition on the city. Starting with Nashville's Ordinances, it would appear that the city was ahead of the 18th Amendment game by a decade. 

Nashville Lays Down the Law

From our Laws of Nashville book from 1917, the first law passed making unlawful "to sell or tipple any intoxicating liquors, including wine, ale and beer, as a beverage within the corporate limits of the City of Nashville. Any person, firm or corporation violating the foregoing section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor. Mayor and City Council, approved April 23, 1909 (ordinance 1059)."

I wanted to post a photo here of the official ordinance passed, but I found something more intriguing in the City Council Minutes instead. Before the ordinance was passed, there's a page in the minutes (written by the Mayor to the City Council) as a sort of "state of the city address" that specifically talks about Prohibition laws, and the city's plans to move forward (to create laws of their own in addition to the state laws). It's pretty neat, and we even have it on display when you walk into Archives. But here's one of the pages...


From the 1909 City Council Minutes, a letter from the Mayor to the City Council regarding possible Prohibition laws.

A couple other subsequent ordinances:

  • Ordinance 1060, pg. 496 from the Laws of Nashville - 1917:

"To sell or tipple any intoxicating liquors, including wine, ale or beer, as a beverage, or to conduct, maintain, carry on or engage in the sale of intoxicating liquors within the corporate limits of the City of Nashville, as now or hereafter defined, is hereby declared to be and made a nuisance, and punishable as a misdemeanor. From the Board of Commissioners, Ordinance 620. Approved Feb 1st, 1916."

  • Ordinance 1071, pg. 499 from the Laws of Nashville - 1917:

"Nothing in any of the preceding sections shall be so construed as to permit any of the parties hereinbefore mentioned to sell, barter, deal out, traffic in or give away on Sunday any spirituous, vinous or malt liquors at his, her or their respective places of business."

City of Nashville Arrest Blotters


1906 Police Blotter featuring several arrests from January of that year.

One of our volunteer projects involved indexing our large and very dirty arrest blotters. These are essentially just hand-written indexes of various arrests in the city, during any given timeframe. I specifically looked at the index for the August 1916–January 1917 blotter, which included about 5,800 arrests (for 5 months!). Of that 5,800 (5,871 total), roughly 1,688 were arrests involving either "tippling" or "drunk and disorderly". That means roughly 28% of arrests involved alcohol, during a time that the City of Nashville and the state had their own Prohibition laws. Yeah, let that settle. Finding out how this affected crime before and after 1909 though would be an interesting research topic. 

The main difference between "tippling" and "drunk and disorderly" involves arresting an owner or seller at an establishment versus a drunk individual. With tippling, it's also accompanied with the word "house" like "tippling house", or tavern, or saloon. 

I found a great specific definition in a book my boss lent me called What Did They Mean By That? Tavern, saloon, tippling house are all defined as such:

"A place where drinkers are entertained, usually with minimal food and without overnight accommodations, the rates of which were frequently set by a court having county-wide jurisdiction; a saloon usually was a lower class tavern, e.g., 'to the dismay of the preachers, every small town had its share of taverns'; 'the upper class might speak of having been to a tavern, but not admit to visiting a saloon."

Recently-Found Criminal Court Case Files

1915 State vs. Johnson et al.

Another project that we've had volunteers working on involves processing our recently-acquired Criminal Court Case Files, from around the turn of the century. There have been some really interesting ones we've found, including a couple pertaining to Jim Crow laws with the city's streetcars. I think I've mentioned these before in a past blog post, but not sure. Either way, I'm hoping to write a blog post about them someday, hopefully soon. 

But the case that I'm mentioning today involves an unlawful speakeasy and possible gaming business that was found in the Duncan Hotel, in 1915. If you're curious what the location of this hotel was, it was at the corner of Cedar (Charlotte) Street and 4th Ave N. The building that's located there today is the Tennessee Department of Human Services. 


Photo of the Duncan Hotel, circa early 1900s.

Though I'm not sure if they were found guilty (since they all appeared to plead not guilty), I can say it appears what they were charged with was...

"...the sale of soft drinks in Davidson County, Tennessee, also from moving or disturbing said soft drinks, or bar or bar fixtures, also from entering the building or in any way interfering with the stock materials and supplies used or in any wise connected with the sale of soft drinks at the...Duncan Hotel."

Also, they were being called out on being a public nuisance. 

It looks like they tried to close the hotel down while the place was searched and investigated, but the operator of the hotel petitioned to remain open since there were still hotel guests in the building. Thankfully the courts/judges allowed them to do so. 

Sadly, I couldn't find any other juicy details about the case, other than the evidence found in the hotel when it was inspected—like in the bar room...  


But if you're curious about the case, it's a pretty thick file. Come on down and check it out; we'd be glad to show it to you. 

Intriguing News Clippings from the Prohibition Era

I've come across several great news clippings regarding Prohibition and thought I'd share some of my favorites...


Tennessean clipping from January, 1920, about the death of "John Barleycorn" (aka alcohol).


Tennessean clipping from January, 1920, regarding "Departed Spirits".


Tennessean clipping regarding a creative way to bring alcohol across the border. We got a good laugh at this one.


Life magazine cartoon from March 6th, 1919, showing the funeral of "John Barleycorn."


Life magazine cartoon from March 6th, 1919 regarding the country being by itself in its "bone dry" endeavor.


Life magazine cartoon from March 6th, 1919 regarding the last legal drop being the best one.

'Til next time,


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.